Nuclear war fear over Y2K bug

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

19 December 1999

The Government is to send teams of millennium bug busters to locations around the world in an attempt to warn Britons of the possible dangers they face as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, writes Jo Dillon .

A special unit in the Foreign Office, staffed by three teams each of nine people, will be manning a 24-hour operation to field information from countries where the millennium comes earlier than in the UK. Reports giving details of any difficulties experienced abroad to the east are expected to reach London by noon on New Year's Eve.

In all, 76 key sites have been chosen to supply regular updates through the night. "The 76 have been chosen because they are key for political and commercial reasons," a Foreign Office source said. "The first reports will give us any signs of infrastructure failure. And if there are any real difficulties, they will get in touch with key contacts in the Government."

It is understood that each Government department has appointed a duty minister for millennium night in case of major failures, and they will be alerted to serious problems abroad in their fields.

"The key is to get information about what is happening overseas into the public domain as quickly and as accurately as possible," the source said. "Part of the advantage of being strategically placed in the middle (Britain will see in the New Year 13 hours later than it strikes first) is that we will be able to see what is happening in other countries and feed information to ministers and experts. We will be able to use it to make sure the same thing is not going to happen here."

British nationals abroad will be able to call on the services of a special "consular emergency unit", which will be on 24-hour standby, should they experience difficulties.

Russia and America are starting up an unprecedented joint early warning system this week, amid fears that the millennium bug could start a nuclear war.

Top brass from both sides will watch missile warning screens side by side in a specially constructed building until a week after the new year. They will try to detect false alarms from computer glitches, and avoid launching nuclear strikes in response.

But leading experts - including Nobel Peace Prize-winners and one of America's most distinguished bomb designers - says this does not go far enough, and are campaigning for Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton to deactivate their nuclear arsenals over the turn of the year. They say that the dangers have been made even greater by the tensions over the war in Chechnya.

The two superpowers have 4,400 nuclear weapons - more than enough to destroy the world - ready to be launched at a moment's notice. In the past, experts say, false alarms generated by faulty equipment have caused an alarming number of near misses: on one occasion a poorly designed chip, costing just 64 cents, deep in the US Defence Department's telephone switchboard hardware, started sending out signals that a Soviet attack was under way.

Last year an authoritative report concluded that there could be "no confidence" that the Pentagon would get its systems ready for Y2K, as the millennium bug is known in the US. Though the US has enormously improved its preparedness since, experts say that no one can be certain that its systems are 100 per cent fool-proof; and there is acute alarm about Russia's decaying nuclear control system.

This Wednesday some 20 senior Russian officers will join a similar number of Americans at a specially built "Centre for Y2K Stability" in Colorado Springs near the US early warning command centre deep in the mountains.

The centre will become fully operational on December 28 and from then until January 7 two Russian officers and two Americans will sit side by side around the clock, with hotlines to their respective command centres.

The arrangement, which has echoes of the admission of a Russian general to the US war room in the film Dr Strangelove, is modelled on the shared system of air traffic control used in Berlin during the Cold War.

But experts insist that the chances of an accidental war remain. Sir Joseph Rotblat, a member of the war-time Manhattan project, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his work on nuclear disarmament, told The Independent on Sunday: "You cannot exclude the possibility that something may go wrong. The probability of it may be very slight, but the consequences would be enormous."

Professor Ted Taylor, who was one of the US's most senior bomb designers, adds: "No one can estimate the risk. It may be one in 10 or one in 1,000, but it is certainly there."

He says that keeping nuclear weapons on red alert after the end of the Cold War "may be one of the biggest mistakes humans have ever made".

Both have joined the campaign led by Dr Helen Caldicott, the founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which is trying to persuade the leaders of both superpowers to deactivate their weapons.

The critics say that the danger is not that nuclear weapons will launch themselves automatically, but that the millennium bug will cause false alarms and shorten the 15 minutes in which a decision has to be taken on whether to launch a retaliatory strike. With tensions between Russia and the United States at their highest for years, even the joint control centre may not overcome the mistrust, they say.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Campaign Manager

£40000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Campaign Man...

JQuery Developer (JQuery, C#, front-end, JQuery, UI, Tomcat)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organ...

Senior Sales Supervisor

£75000 - £100000 per annum + bonus, bens: Progressive Recruitment: Sales Super...

Linux Systems Administrator - UNIX, Linux, Shell, Bash

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Linux Systems Administrator - UNI...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil